The Post-COVID Middle East? Toast.
The aftermath of COVID will present its own grievous set of problems, some of which we are already seeing in a newly declared U.S. economic recession, much like the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918 was the prologue to the Great Depression, which in turn led to World War II. Once the wheels of history begin to turn they tend to feed off of each other.
The economic devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic will no doubt aggravate existing long-term trends and set the stage for instances of collapse. To appreciate this one need only study the Middle East and India, parts of which are becoming a literal tinder box.
India, for example, is home to well over a billion people. By 2027 it is expected to overtake China as the world’s most populated country. Yet at the same time government officials report that half of the country—about 600 million people—suffer from “high to extreme water stress.” Likewise during the next decade, the demand for water in India will grow to over twice the available supply. To make matters worse, by the end of the century temperatures in the region are expected to reach levels which are “intolerable to humans.” As in somewhere around 140 degrees Fahrenheit.
Dry, crispy. Toast.
At this point optimists usually broach the topic of quick fix solutions like solar powered air conditioners. What’s left unsaid is that most people in India still need to go outside to make a living. Over half of India’s population works in agriculture, and all those solar powered heat exchangers are only going to make toiling in the fields more unpleasant.
But heat and water scarcity aren’t the only existential threats. Indeed, there’s no guarantee that India will even survive long enough to witness Mother Nature’s blast furnace at the end of the century. That’s because India’s next door neighbor, Pakistan, also faces high levels of water stress. Pakistan gets much of its fresh water by means of the Indus System of rivers, which flows into the country from—you guessed it—India. Roughly 90 percent of Pakistan’s agricultural production depends upon Indus System waterways.
As the Himalayan glaciers that feed the Indus System shrink, the corresponding increase in demand will ensure that access to potable water becomes a vital issue. If India were to cut off Pakistan’s supply, as Indian officials have already threatened to do, the outcome would be disastrous.
India and Pakistan both possess nuclear arsenals. At least a couple hundred warheads each. Peer reviewed scientific research indicates that if these weapons were used to target highly populated urban centers, it would send fallout into the atmosphere and result in a nuclear winter. Scientists calculate that surface sunlight would decline by 20 percent to 35 percent and precipitation by 15 percent to 30 percent.
What might seem like a limited regional conflict would end up being a global incident as the planet becomes enveloped in high altitude streams of fine radioactive soot. Given insufficient sunlight and rainfall, starvation would almost certainly kill more people than the initial nuclear exchange. Pakistan is already dealing with the specter of famine. And we’ve had a taste of what minor supply chain disruption can do to fragile distribution networks here in the United States. Imagine what would happen to the Middle East if all of the major cities in Pakistan and India were consumed by fireballs.
It goes without saying that there would be an exodus from affected areas that would dwarf what happened during the Syrian war. Leading to increased tension, surrounding governments will have to wrestle with how to manage wave after wave of refugees. And while the military collision of Pakistan and India wouldn’t be an extinction level event for the human race, it would be traumatic enough to produce severe social turbulence.
Saudi Arabia would be particularly susceptible. This gulf state is the canonical example of a regime that’s living on borrowed time. Sooner or later the kingdom will implode regardless of whether or not Pakistan and India annihilate each other. Largely because Saudi Arabia’s economy is dependent on oil which is used to pay for unsustainable government programs. Moreover the kingdom’s leaders have made limited progress in transitioning to a different economic model.
On the home front, approximately 70 percent of all workers in Saudi Arabia are employed by the government and 90 percent of the government’s revenues come from oil. Not to mention the thousands of members of the Saud royal family whose yearly stipends amount to five percent of all public spending —Approximately $2 billion. Making the House of Windsor, which costs the United Kingdom less than $100 million per year, seem downright thrifty.
Saudi Arabia is also the single largest arms importer in the world, straining its treasury with purchases of well over $15 billion between 2014 and 2018. In theory this investment in weaponry affords Saudi Arabia “iron clad” security guarantees from the United States. In practice the Saudi Monarchy uses its military to destabilize the surrounding region. With regard to its foray into Yemen, the kingdom clearly bit off more than it could chew, spending hundreds of billions before decision makers realized their mistake and frantically began petitioning for a ceasefire.
The Saudi approach to international relations is based heavily on its checkbook, which is leveraged to play an elaborate double game. As one journalist aptly put it, Saudi Arabia is both the arsonist and firefighter. On one hand a State Department memo refers to Saudi Arabia as “the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.” The kingdom’s role in supporting insurgents in Syria is well documented. These groups were dominated by radical Islamists. On the other hand, the CIA has formally recognized Saudi Arabia for its counterterror efforts. Hence it should come as no surprise that Saudi money in Afghanistan concurrently funded both the Taliban and the U.S.-supported government.
All of these stratagems rely on identifying pliable stakeholders and discreetly paying them off. When the oil money finally starts to peter out, which is expected to happen in a matter of decades, the House of Saud will no longer be able to buy its way out of trouble. The generous government subsidies, the free healthcare, the cushy public sector jobs, the political donations, the arms purchases, the proxy wars; the party will be over. Just in time for climate change to cook the region sunny side up.
Suffice it to say tourism will be a hard sell.
The Saudi elders know where the status quo is headed and have tried to reinvent the kingdom by proposing sweeping reforms that include adopting a private sector model as well as selling shares in the state’s oil monopoly, Saudi Aramco. These initiatives have been collectively branded as “Saudi Vision 2030.” However, with the cost of oil dropping thanks to a price war with Russia and the spread of COVID-19, there probably won’t be enough funding to complete the makeover in time.
This may explain why the Saudi elites have been snapping up property in other countries. It’s their royal exit strategy.
The cycle of history rises and falls with a rhythm that emerges on different levels of granularity. Sometimes major realignments take only a decade or two. Other times they take centuries. But there’s always a return to equilibrium. Thousands of years ago the Middle East was a cradle for early human civilization. Perhaps it’s only fitting that the Middle East should ultimately serve as a casket.
The plight of nations like India, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia underscore the extent of the terrestrial changes underway. Broad swaths of the planet are about to become sweltering, hungry, and desperate. You don’t have to be Thomas Malthus to guess how this story ends. Take away enough seats during a game of musical chairs and things quickly degenerates into a brutal zero-sum affair. The narrative of civilization can be defined in terms of nations competing over resources. War, plague, famine, and death are the recurring themes of this narrative.
Bill Blunden is an independent investigator focusing on information security, anti-forensics, and institutional analysis. He is the author of several books, including The Rootkit Arsenal and Behold a Pale Farce: Cyberwar, Threat Inflation, and the Malware-Industrial Complex. Bill is the lead investigator at Below Gotham Labs.